by Steve Lundin
This is the third interview conducted with candidates for the Sanibel City Council elections, scheduled for March 7. There are five seats on the city council and two are being challenged. These seats are currently held by Holly Smith, the council appointed Mayor of Sanibel, and Richard Johnson, Vice Mayor.
Troy Cobb Thompson is a Sanibel native whose family businesses include Lazy Flamingo I & II, Sunset Grill, Sanibel Fresh and the Santiva General Store. Thompson has served four terms on the island’s Historical Committee. This is his first run for City Council.
What motivated you to get into public service?
I grew up on the island and have lived all over it, and always immersed myself in its rich history. I have done just about everything you can do on this island and am passionate about maintaining its heritage. When an opening came up on the Historical Committee, I jumped at the chance to become actively involved, and have been appointed four times now.
Lots of things were lost during the storm and we need to keep track of our history. Look at Fort Myers Beach – it has a lot of history too, but you could never tell. Just because you can build on every square inch of something doesn’t mean that you should. I’ve seen people age out or move away over the years and am very interested in making sure that younger people know that they can step up and get involved in island committees, like I have.
How do you feel that Ian was handled in terms of emergency operations prior to the hurricane?
There was literally no handbook for a horrible catastrophe like Ian, nothing in any plan could have addressed what happened on the scale we dealt with. The Sanibel Plan itself has a policy that notes that the causeway may not be usable and puts aside a parcel of property for staging in that event, however there was nothing in the Plan for getting back and forth in the case of the Causeway failing. The causeway is the lifeline to the island – but we had no support. There was a lot of scrambling and figuring things out – and a lack of communication. Policy 3.4 of the plans cites a ‘plan of least regret storm’ and that’s what we dealt with.
Please address the island hubris and unwillingness to leave on the part of some residents.
My whole life has been “storm surge, watch out for the storm surge,” and it never happens. It became folk lore to me, and many others, something a news person says. It’s hard to imagine a massive wall of water as anything more than an excuse to sell hurricane supplies when it’s never happened. I’d say that, and Irma, were the big factors contributing to the attitude. We kept hearing during Irma, “it’s coming to us, it’s coming to us,” and I stayed on the Island and it was a ghost town. We made such a big deal about Irma – so we were laid back when this one hit. We weren’t proactive about discussing what happens if this storm didn’t go to Tampa. It was a boy who cried wolf scenario and it cost us.
We lost four people during Ian; how do we protect those lives in the future?
At the end of the day, you can’t force people off the island – they’re going to make their decisions and protect their stuff. I’m blessed and fortunate to call Sanibel my home. But there are a lot of people who have worked their entire lives to get to this island, so I understand them not wanting to leave. If it wasn’t for me being a father, I’d probably have been in my apartment, and I don’t know if I’d be here now. I think if you’re elderly and need to be attended to, you need to leave. I don’t think people should be guilted about staying after the fact; they’re all adults and they made their own choice. Four people in the big scheme of things is better than what other places have dealt with.
What did we learn as a result of all this?
We need to be more prepared and take these storms seriously. Everyone can Monday morning quarterback. September 29th came and presented the City Council with some of the hardest decisions that any group of people could ever be tasked to make. We need to use this as a lesson moving forward. I mentioned in the forum we have a provision that specifies maintaining the proper equipment for coming back to the Island in the event of a catastrophic failure of the Causeway. Do we have the equipment for that? We need to look at what we have as a city for viable options – whether buying it for ourselves or getting a contract.
We had spoken about a ferry during the forum, and I think we should have a ferry landing. What happens if a gas tanker explodes on the Causeway tomorrow? That’s going to take longer to fix than just the two sides. We have to be prepared for anything. Look at us – if something bad can happen it will happen. At the end of the day the Causeway is just a fragile bridge – and we have seen how important that bridge is. If we can’t get back and forth, we are doing our citizens a disservice. We can’t rely on helicopters to get people on or off the island. I don’t think we should villainize anyone for what happened – we need to use this as a lesson and have the right people and equipment lined up.
Why are you seeking this position – and what would you like to see happen in the next four years?
This is America and if you qualify and want to get involved in public service you can. I think the process and providing people with options is extremely important. When I decided to run, before the hurricane, there was just one incumbent seeking reelection. Many people talked about running, but they seem to have disappeared after the hurricane. I’m not saying anyone has done anything wrong. If you are a citizen of Sanibel and you are extremely happy with the city council, then by all means reelect them. I’m not going anywhere – I’ll be back in two years. But if you’re unhappy and you don’t feel that your voice is being heard, as I felt mine wasn’t, then you have an option. The current city council should know that I’m coming, and this is not a time to relax.
We are an inflection point in the island’s history – it’s going to be significant, and many things are going to change. This is going to be a difficult time for people, and many are going to feel that they are being personally punished. I want the permitting and rebuilding process to be as smooth as possible for everyone. It’s going to be tough -and I want people to know I am right there with them. I am involved and passionate about this island – it’s my hometown; it’s not like I have a life somewhere else. I run a business on the Island and I’m a resident of the Island. If I’m elected, I will do my very best to make ensure that this island stays the beautiful sanctuary island that it can be.
If I did not run, you wouldn’t have had that forum – you would not have heard from the incumbents. Some of the incumbents are much more active now that I have started running and that was part of my goal. I brought awareness to the fact that there was an election. I feel I have accomplished at least half of what I set out to do.
Any interest in public service outside of Sanibel?
I really enjoy the government process, serving the community and I running for this seat. If I go further in four or eight or 10 years, I only see my actions as being beneficial to my hometown.